A big second chance
Year forced to sit and watch has made its mark on right tackle
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Bobby Hart was 17, and he believed he'd conquered the world. That's what 17-year-olds think when they've moved from highly regarded recruit to starter on Florida State's offensive line -- all before they're old enough to vote. Then suddenly it was gone, and by his 18th birthday Hart was buried on the depth chart, a washed-up case of wasted potential, the unwilling recipient of a hard lesson in maturity.
It's not fair to call this a reclamation project. Hart's career has hardly started, after all. But this spring was a second chance for the junior who won't turn 19 until August, a chance to show that his hulking frame and brute strength are now supplemented by the wisdom that can only come from experience.
What happened was simple. A rash of injuries and ineffective play left Florida State with few alternatives on the offensive line in 2011, so Hart, a freshman, was thrown into the fire. He responded with the typical successes and failures, but assumed he'd done enough to keep the job.
By the spring, things had changed. Florida State had alternatives, and Hart's lackadaisical approach to practice riled his old-school coach, Rick Trickett. Within weeks, Hart had lost his hold on the starting job, and by the fall, he was essentially a forgotten man.
It was humbling, but necessary. And now, as Hart seems to have finally recaptured his job, he's not taking anything for granted.
"Really and truly, I'm not worrying about whether I'm going to start or not," he said. "I'm just going out there making sure I do everything right, taking the coaching in, and I'll leave [picking a starter] up to the coaches."
That's a decision Jimbo Fisher isn't likely to make official anytime soon. In fact, given Hart's track record, it's understandable if his coaches don't fully endorse him. There's a benefit to dangling that proverbial carrot just out of reach.
But after Menelik Watson's surprising announcement in January that he'd depart for the NFL draft, the right tackle spot has been open, and there's no more attractive candidate to fill the vacancy than Hart -- at least, if he's interested in winning the job.
"He can be a very good player -- that's the good thing," Fisher said. "You keep striving and working, and physically he can do the things he's got to do."
Physically, Hart's potential has never been questioned. At 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds he has the size to become a dominant tackle. Finding the drive is what has eluded him thus far.
A season spent watching the action from the sidelines helped, though. In a perfect world, that might have happened sooner. Fisher knew Hart was young and needed time to develop and mature, but the dearth of available bodies on the line made a redshirt impossible.
As a freshman, however, it was easy for Hart to confuse the team's desperation with his own success, and his response was to assume he could coast his way through the next three seasons.
"It's just something that sets in," Hart said. " ... you're not as hungry as you were before you got it."
Watson's arrival last summer changed things. There still wasn't much depth on the line, but Watson wanted the job that Hart had taken for granted. Watson had played fewer games in his life than Hart had started just the year before, but in terms of maturity, Watson dwarfed his young teammate.
"He was very mature. He didn't play games," Hart said of Watson, who was nearly six years older at the time. "He knew what he wanted to do, wanted to come here and play, and even in the meetings, he would immediately take control of things. It was just a good thing to be in there with him."
It's not that he enjoyed waiting on the sideline, watching Watson succeed in his old job, but those tough lessons weren't lost on Hart.
Nearly every day, he'd talk with his roommate, receiver Rashad Greene, about what he needed to do to get better. In the beginning, Hart's conversations included frustration or self pity, but eventually that became a stern resolve.
"He's taking things a lot more seriously," Greene said. "I could tell he really wants it bad. He's going to do all he can to go out there and compete and do the best he can and take the coaching and be ready at all times. We had all those talks, and I can honestly say he's ready and his mind is there. He's focused."
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The biggest difference, however, is that when Hart makes mistakes he's trying to make them at full speed. There are miscues and hiccups, but he's trying to learn from them rather than ignore them. And while Hart remains a work in progress, even Fisher has had to admit progress.
"He's improving a lot," Fisher said. "Run blocking is better, pass blocking is solid, getting better, more consistent."
There are no promises, even after Hart appeared to hold onto the starting job throughout the spring. Fisher has been quick to mention alternatives at right tackle, should Hart slip up again, and the experiences of 2012 were enough to convince Hart it isn't a bluff.
"Now that you've got the position where you can become a starter again, you want to do everything you can to keep it," Hart said. "Because it's not fun sitting on the bench watching the game."